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What Can Faculty Do about Students’ Classroom-Based Anxieties? More Than You Think.

Posted by on Monday, August 4, 2014 in Commentary, Events, Resource.

by Nancy Chick (CFT Assistant Director)

Last week, The Princeton Review released its annual list of “The Top 10 Colleges for ___,” and Vanderbilt made a big splash by ranking #1 with the Happiest College Students in the US.*  While this is fantastic news for the campus, and it’s interesting to speculate about what makes these students so happy, I worry about the effect of this news on many others, especially those who experience a range of anxieties and stresses.

Anecdotally, most of the Vanderbilt students I come into contact with are among the most stressed I’ve encountered. Less anecdotally, Vanderbilt’s Psychological and Counseling Center (PCC) sees about 20% of the student body, and the most common reason given for seeking services is anxiety. Put another way, anxiety is the most prevalent concern, ahead of other common concerns such as depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol use, and trauma.

Yesterday, David Sacks (Associate Director of the PCC and Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at VUMC) and I facilitated a workshop at the Center for Teaching on how faculty can reduce students’ classroom-based anxieties, and a common theme in everyone’s comments was how frequently the students think, “I’m the only one struggling” or “Everyone else is doing better than I am.”  Imagine how students would feel if struggling with test anxiety, imposter syndrome, perfectionism, worries about post-graduate plans, stereotype threat, and/or dissertation burnout, etc., and then hearing that their peers here are the happiest in the country.

With these concerns, David and I shared some strategies for how faculty can mitigate some of these stresses that directly affect students’ academic work in the forms of illness, requests for extensions, hypervigilance, underperformance, cheating, reductions in studying or valuing course tasks, and altered professional goals. While faculty aren’t therapists, and we can only have a limited impact, we can minimize some of these class-based anxieties by doing the following:

  • Think about the amount of stress or difficulty in your courses.  Whether looking to sports psychology (Yerkes & Didson, 1908; Easterbrook, 1959), developmental psychology (Vgotsky’s zone of promixal development), or the psychology of curiosity (Day’s Zone of Curiosity), we know there’s a “sweet spot” in which peak performance is motivated by encountering just enough and not too much difficulty, stress, or anxiety.
  • Think about the timing of the most difficult components of your courses. Scaffolding activities to build toward the greatest challenges–rather than situating them too early and/or all at once–helps guide students through the most challenging tasks.  The former is a gateway model; the latter is gatekeeping.
  • Think about the way you frame or talk about difficult tasks, critical concepts or skills, your discipline, your own learning, and your students’ well-being.  There’s much to say here, but ultimately, consider whether your students hear that you believe that a) they can all do well by putting effort in the right places, and b) they can handle the challenges of your course, your field, and learning in general.

We then brainstormed how each of us might put the above principles into practice in our specific courses and contexts. For example, how can you address these anxiety-mitigating principles in your syllabus (the prose part and the schedule)? On the first day of class?  The day before or of a major assignment? During office hours? If you’d like help planning the amount, timing, and framing of the challenges in your courses to reach “the sweet spot” between high levels of rigor and performance-reducing anxiety, meet with us at the CFT (322-7290).

* The ranking came from survey responses to “Overall, how happy are you?” using a 5-point Likert scale–one of 80 questions on the survey sent to 130,000 students at 379 colleges and universities.

Relevant Resources from the PCC and the CFT

Visit this Faculty & Staff Info page from the Psychological and Counseling Center for the following resources:

  • At Risk Online Interactive Training (“Kognito At Risk”), an online interactive training program designed for faculty and staff to learn to recognize signs of psychological distress and help connect students to appropriate resources.
  • MAPS Training (Mental health Awareness & Prevention of Suicide)
  • Crisis Management in case of acute crisis
  • Students in Distress: A Guide for Vanderbilt Faculty & Staff, a helpful list of behaviors indicating distress and the need for help.
  • Liaison & Outreach Roles for Graduate and Professional Schools, the PCC’s liaisons who will meet annually with the program at a faculty meeting to inform/update the faculty on services at the PCC.

See the following resources from the Center for Teaching:

  • The Mindful PhD blog, that focuses on how mindful practices can benefit faculty and students. Some student-specific posts with specific strategies are as follows:

Reducing Stress,” “Support for Stressed Students,” “In Case of Emergency,” “Busy Shaming,” “Inspiration, Creativity, & New Ideas,” “Reading Like Bruce Lee,” “How It Works: I (Attention Regulation),” “Being Fully Present in the Classroom

  • Our Teaching in Times of Crisis guide, offering specific strategies and advice for what to do in the classroom in the case of a local, national, or international crisis.
  • Our guide for International Teaching Assistants, which is designed to help international TAs adjust to the US classroom, but it’s also helpful for thinking about some of the stresses experienced by many of our international students–requested by workshop participants.

Photo Credit: Art by Lee Ellis via Compfight cc

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